Saturday, September 22, 2018

"I Still Love You Girl From Mars": Years Down the Road, Ash Continues to Burn Baby Burn -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

w/ opening act Namorado
Schubas, Chicago
September 19, 2018

I've pretty much written this review before.

Not so much specifically about Ash, the hard-rocking Irish trio I've loved since discovering them--pretty much in real-time--through the stellar soundtrack for the so-so 1995 film, Angus.

Though I similarity lavished praise on Ash's 2013 and 2016 shows at Chicago's Lincoln Hall--I also saw them three times previously--the gist of my thoughts about Wednesday's gig at Schubas's was actually expressed just last week.

Regarding the Stereophonics.

Like that Welsh band, Ash has been far more popular in the UK than in the U.S.

Their 1996 debut album, titled 1977, topped the British charts--as did 2001's Free All Angels--and is considered one of the greatest albums in BritPop history. 

While I sense their overseas popularity has somewhat subsided--and perhaps never quite matched the heights reached by the Stereophonics--I believe Ash remains a well-known entity who can delight large festival crowds across the pond.

But as I wrote about the Stereophonics, American music fans have largely been oblivious to Ash, relegating them to playing relatively tiny venues compared to back home.

This doesn't matter to those of us who enjoy their music, or even seemingly the musicians, who definitely seem to bring their all despite--in Ash's case--playing a non-sold out show at Schubas, which only holds about 150 people.

The concert came 8 days and four blocks west on Belmont Avenue from the Stereophonics blistering the Vic Theatre, which holds 1,000 people but was also well short of sold-out.

I like the Stereophonics a bit more overall, and in playing an hour longer than Ash's 90 minutes, their show was slightly more pleasing.

Still, I feel compelled to likewise award Ash @@@@@ on my 5@ scale, as they delivered a forceful concert that was every bit as good as I could have hoped. (My @ rating aims to gauge how well an artist pleases me and meets my expectations without being strictly comparative to other shows and acts.)

Until I noticed in recent weeks that they were booked into Schubas, I hadn't been aware that Ash released a new album, Islands, in May.

But even in giving it just a few listens, many strong songs were apparent, and from the show opening "Buzzkill" to "True Story," "Confessions in the Pool," "Annabel" and "All That I Have Left," the new material impressed alongside the old.

The same three guys--singer/guitarist/chief songwriter Tim Wheeler, bassist Mark Hamilton, drummer Rick McMurray--have been in Ash since 1992, when they were all teenagers.

So virtually all of their songs have a similar punk-pop sound without out much instrumental diversity, and though I love it, the lack of variance is why 90 minutes was plenty and why I don't consider Ash quite up there with the Stereophonics or some of the truly all-time great bands.

But they are terrific at what they do, and with the three old friends now into their 40s, there doesn't seem to be any notable dropoff.

Songs from 1977--"Goldfinger," "Kung Fu," "Lose Control," "Oh Yeah," "Angel Interceptor" and especially "Girl From Mars"--remain sheer delights, and tracks from across 8 albums demonstrated that Wheeler and Co. have always been able to write a catchy tune.

"Jesus Says," "Orpheus," "Jack Names the Planets" and the closing "Burn Baby Burn" were a few other highlights, but pretty much everything was. 

The generally SRO Schubas graciously accommodated my request for a seat, and being right up by the stage made for a fantastic night.

A Chicago band called Namorado opened the show, and though nothing in particular stood out to me, they acclimated themselves well.

As I say repeatedly, I wish there were more new guitar-driven rock bands that excited me.

Perhaps there are and I just don't know them. But there also are likely many other bands such as Ash, around for awhile, largely or entirely unknown to me but rather fantastic.

I've caught wind of a few fairly recently, such as Superchunk, but am always open to learning about more.

For while there are still many huge rock acts that I love--Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, U2, Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, etc.--nearly as fulfilling are the "personal favorites" such as Stereophonics and Ash.

And as the past fortnight has proven, both continue to burn bright.

I didn't record it from the very beginning, but here's a bit of "Girl From Mars" from Wednesday night:

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